What makes for meaningful conversation among young people today? These reflections triggered a distinct memory of observing my son’s middle school dance years ago. At pick up time, upon entering the church hall, most of the students were sitting at their respective tables, staring into their phones with their fingers rapidly texting each other rather than having live, in-person interactions. One could tell that they were communicating with each other with the periodic nodding or other non-verbal expressions such as a thumbs up or a moment of eye contact with a smile. Who knew that years later such expressions of pleasure and emotion would be communicating with emojis, gifs or agreed upon text language such as LOL, OMG, LMK, ILY and many others? On the drive home I recall asking my son, “Why didn’t you tell your friend to come over this weekend to watch movies?” His response was that texting was the in way of communicating and that is what they all did. My initial impression was that of worry for the young generations to come who would use their phones and other devices as means of communicating rather than natural human contact and interaction. Thankfully, my son communicates quite well with others in person, so my fear has been allayed. Nonetheless, this author wonders whether it is possible to get beyond the superficiality of the virtual persona and world an individual can create through social media and whether it is possible to experience genuine contact with others so that meaningful conversation can take place.

In just a few years social media has exploded onto the world wide web and enraptured the minds and hearts of many young people—from the hundreds of “selfies” that are taken to the constant need to check in with Twitter or Instagram status updates in order to feel “connected” to friends and acquaintances. The Pew Research Report “Social Media Use in 2021” stated that a majority of 18–29-year-olds use Instagram, Snapchat or TikTok on a regular basis.[1] Often bereft of meaningful relationships other than immediate family, social media has provided a means for young people to clandestinely explore the lives of others while creating a virtual persona quite different from their public one. Many have developed exceptional skill at texting and instant messaging many friends simultaneously and yet increasingly struggle with face-to-face interactions. 

Social media has become the virtual “school yard” or “hallway” where young people decide who to relate to and which groups to associate with producing negative effects with escalating reports of cyber-bullying, sexting, and adolescents taking their lives by suicide. Issues of image, beauty, identity, sexual orientation, and many others are openly expressed through countless tweets, likes, blog posts, Instagram, TikTok videos, Facebook live posts, YouTube videos and other mediums without fear of judgment and, through the use of privacy settings, can control who has access to these ideas. Through these polyvalent virtual means, young people express their beliefs in God, political issues, opinions about movies, music and popular culture and hope to gain followership with those who agree with them.

Beside the entertainment value these media outlets provide, daily, local, national and world headlines are now sought by means of social media and no longer by reading the paper or putting on your favorite tv news outlet. According to a most recent Pew article, some 86% of US adults get their news from their smartphone, computer, or tablet.[2] For many, social media provided a means to cope with fear, anxiety, and depression in 2020 due to the effects of the pandemic, but even before this forced period of isolation, researchers in the area of youth and young adult ministry have found these populations of young people to be among the loneliest of generations. Springtide Research Institute reported that “the global health service company Cigna surveyed more than 20,000 U.S. adults 18 years of age or older measured the impact of loneliness in America” which found that Generation Z (those emerging adults between the ages of 18-22) is “the loneliest generation.” The study conducted by Springtide determined that some of the main factors for these feelings of loneliness included social isolation due to a decreased sense of belonging and high levels of stress. Interestingly, social media was not determined to be a factor in respondents’ sense of social isolation. They also found that participating in religious groups had virtually no effect on their experience of loneliness. For some families, living in quarantine exacerbated already existing problems of lack of communication among members while for others served as opportunities for the sharing of meals, dialogue, and healing of relationships. Despite the recent loosening of restrictions in different regions and some parishioners returning at limited capacity, this health crisis has revealed the lack of pastoral presence or care with so many ministry efforts predicated upon parishioners coming into the church instead of the church going out.

This brief essay endeavors to begin a conversation (pun intended) about how best to return to some semblance of Christian community life, which is essential for effective ministry. While it is true that these various media outlets have created “communities” of individuals through mutual interests or opinions, one must wonder what real depth of dialogue and meaningful conversation can occur through these means. It is commendable to note the value of the thousands of pastoral ministers who sought to stay connected with members of their programs through Skype, Zoom, WhatsApp, and other community platforms of the aforementioned social media outlets, but many have admitted they saw very little participation and minimal conversation that could be described as meaningful. In what follows, we will propose three key dispositions needed for easing back into relational ministry characterized by intentional dialogue which may lead to meaningful conversation and a growing sense of belonging with the goal being to return to in-person community gatherings and using media outlets for communication and resources.

“By not responding to their angst, we risk the continued decline and presence of young people in our churches. That said, rather than resist and sink our heels insistent that they learn the faith the way we want it to be understood, we need to equip teens with the tools to ask the right questions that can lead to authentic searching for truth in the everyday.”

Disposition #1- Go Where They Are – Despite the assertion that it is challenging to encounter genuine and meaningful conversation via social media outlets, these emerging technologies have become an incredibly valuable resource for community outreach and a very important tool for evangelism, with the many podcasts, YouTube channels, blogs, and TikTokers who use their platform of followers to share the gospel. The experience of pastoral ministers of the past year necessitates a ministry vision without walls; one which is willing to leave the safety and security of the boundaries of the institutional church in order to bring faith on the road to young people. It is a ministry posture that sees the church community not as limited to the physical structure but to the gathering of disciples of Jesus in a coffee shop, after a sporting event, at the mall or online community groups such as WhatsApp, Instagram or in the Twittersphere.[3] It is a ministry vision of abiding itinerancy that is characteristic of the life of discipleship; a holy oscillation between the desire for order, permanency, stability, meaning, and purpose for life while also embracing the tension of the not yet—the impermanence, the chaotic, the uncertainty and changing nature of everyday life. Christian blogger, Joel Mayward describes this tension quite well:

In ministry, we must embrace the tension of being deliberate, careful, and purposeful while having open hands, open ears, and open hearts with a humble willingness to be led by the Spirit of God in a given moment. We become purposefully receptive to giving up our purposes and deliberate about God’s will being above and beyond our own. What does it look like to embrace the tension? Live with a posture of open hands, holding two seemingly-opposing ideas, circumstances, or feelings in each hand–the present and future, suffering and hope, the kingdom being now and not yet, grace and justice, my plans and God’s plan. Live into the paradox and mystery of our reality with honesty and humility. Have a vision of the world with colorful discernment over and above simplistic black-and-white thinking.[4]

This ministry posture must embrace the crucial tension between the now and not yet by assessing the message of the Christian tradition in light of experience and the culture. Long time educator and spiritual writer, Parker Palmer describes this dynamic of holding both the now and not yet as “standing in the tragic gap” that sees the sometimes harsh realities around us but which holds on to the hope of what is possible.[5] Especially in light of the continuing decline of trust in the role of priests and bishops due to the continual surfacing of sexual abuse scandals, more than ever genuine grassroots approach to discipleship living and practice is needed to sustain the church during this trying time.

Disposition #2- Listen and Suspend Judgment- As an essential disposition that will lead to real and meaningful conversation is to first listen. Pastoral agents must allow young people to air their grievances, concerns and perspectives on the church, God, and the relevance of their relationship with God in light of their quotidian reality. This is a daily walk with young people, which is at times more important than any faith content that is shared. Discovering the real concerns young people face is an essential first step to developing an adequate approach to youth ministry and allowing for these voices to be heard. Often their blatant honesty, incessant energy, rebelliousness, doubts, and questions reveal an inherent and authentic yearning for meaning and purpose and a desire to belong. For too long their questions, doubts and struggles expressed have been received superciliously by church leadership and thus have led many young people to feel marginalized. Pope Francis describes legitimate concerns of young people as experiences of the “periphery” or the margins of society, not just geographically or economically but also existentially. The existential periphery is described by Francis as pertaining to “the mystery of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance and indifference to religion, of intellectual currents, and of all misery.” The way to move the voices, concerns, and struggles of young people from the periphery to the forefront is to truly see them. The definition of discipleship, “learning to see, hear, walk with, share with and remove the poor from anonymity,” proffered by the often-misunderstood liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez, has prescribed a helpful way of moving youth from the periphery to the forefront.

“Learning to see” for Gutierrez is more than just the raised awareness of injustices and oppression but the choice to be committed to action; literally to see inside ourselves and the world around us. One of Gutierrez’s foundational Gospel passages for understanding Liberation theology is the story of the widow’s mite in Luke 21:1-4, which is pivotal to this new way of seeing. According to Gutierrez’s exegesis, Jesus chose what door of the temple to observe from—he chose his point of view and then taught his disciples this new way of seeing: “for they (referring to the rich) all contributed out of their abundance, but she (the widow) out of her poverty put in all the living that she had” (v.4).

These reflections are undergirded by countless testimonials of youth ministers whose communities have benefitted from this process of attending and pastoral listening. Many of these reports have been recorded and shared in listening sessions around the world which led to the Synod on Youth in 2018 and the concluding Post-Synodal Exhortation to Young People, Christus Vivit (Christ is alive) written by Pope Francis. In the closing Mass of the Synod the pope he concluded asking for forgiveness:

I would like to say to the young people, in the name of all of us adults: forgive us if often we have not listened to you, if, instead of opening our hearts, we have filled your ears. As Christ’s Church, we want to listen to you with love, certain of two things: that your lives are precious in God’s eyes, because God is young and loves young people, and that your lives are precious in our eyes too, and indeed necessary for moving forward.[6]

By not responding to their angst, we risk the continued decline and presence of young people in our churches. That said, rather than resist and sink our heels insistent that they learn the faith the way we want it to be understood, we need to equip teens with the tools to ask the right questions that can lead to authentic searching for truth in the everyday. Contrary to the popular adage that “children are to be seen and not heard,” young people want to be heard and if we do not let them speak, and if we do not notice them and remove them from anonymity, they will surely not be seen in our churches.

Disposition #3- Walk with Them- The term accompaniment has been a buzz word for the past few years in ministry circles but what exactly does it mean? Simply put, accompaniment means to walk with young people; to share life with young people. Accompaniment is an essential element of being and making disciples. One need only read the Gospels to witness the way Jesus shared life with his disciples by inviting them to “come and see” (John 1:39). This process of seeing how others live their Christian life and sharing that life with others is essential to the life of Christian community. That said, there are certainly challenges to sharing life with the many health and societal challenges we face. There are two aspects to walking with people; you witness their life, and they witness yours. In Christus Vivit, Pope Francis offers some suggestions on how we walk with others through this discipleship vision. He rightly states that the family should be the first place in which accompaniment takes place and as such should be the starting point for dialogue.[7] Any ministry initiative on behalf of and with young people therefore should be “coordinated and integrated” in support of the family and understanding the person’s family dynamics. Essentially by walking with this young person you will intern walking with and associate yourself with their family.

Another key aspect of effective accompaniment which Francis highlights is creating mentoring relationships. Becoming a mentor means that you are providing support and guidance in discerning what God is doing in their life. An important aspect of creating a mentoring environment or community is the need to be authentic in sharing one’s faith journey with mentees; not being afraid to share moments of struggle and doubt, what Francis calls “the acknowledgment of their own humanity.”[8] Sharon Daloz-Parks argues that mentoring communities offer a “trustworthy network of belonging” that “serves as the community of confirmation and contradiction” or the environment whereby individuals can test assumptions and consider important decisions.[9] They should also be open to big-enough questions, or questions of ultimacy or purpose. Mentoring communities should not shy away from these types of inquiries which are at the root of meaning making for youth during this time. Mentoring communities facilitate encounters with others “to see through another’s eyes, to feel through another’s heart, to know something of another’s understanding” in an effort to transcend the typical dichotomy of I and thou, us vs. them to a common ground which seeks to “create a new we.”[10] She argues vehemently that “one of the most significant features of the human adventure is the capacity to take the perspective of another and to be compelled thereby to recompose one’s own perspective.” [11] These mentoring communities allow for genuine and meaningful dialogue that leads to critical thinking and the ability to grapple with complex questions including the many issues of moral ambiguity young people face today.

For practical and safety purposes, while some of these interactions may occur one-on-one, they should be done with the utmost care and transparency, conducted in open places where these exchanges can be easily observed, and with the approval of pastoral leaders, parents, or guardians. Small group interactions with other mentees in the context of prayer gatherings, Bible studies, and other types of smaller gatherings of less than 10 people can be incredibly helpful as well. Consistency and continuity of these interactions with mentees are also crucial to the process so that meaningful conversations can take place. With the help of the Holy Spirit and additional training, mentees develop into potential mentors of others, which leads to a peer ministry cycle; where disciples disciple others. Creating this mentoring environment with the goal of developing peer ministers is by far one of the most effective tools of Christian discipleship.

To conclude, while millions of individuals converge on their social media platforms to connect with others based on common interests, opinions, entertainment choices or faith convictions, these virtual “communities” are challenged in creating meaningful dialogue or engagement with others because they cannot match the power of human contact. Human beings have the natural desire to be in relationship with others and experience a sense of belonging that is created best through in-person interactions. Pastoral ministers have done a formidable job of utilizing these media in order to stay connected with members and have developed incredible resources supporting Christians in terms of formation. The suggested pastoral dispositions of going, listening, and walking with young people are quite intuitive and straightforward, but represent a challenge to many churches who for so long expected people to come, listen and apply what they were taught. These postures represent a necessary ministerial paradigm shift if pastoral leaders truly wish to engage modern young people.    

[1] Brooke Auxier and Monica Anderson, “Social Media Use in 2021”- Pew Research Center- April 7, 2021, https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2021/04/07/social-media-use-in-2021/  Accessed: June 21, 2021.

[2] Elisha Shearer, “More than eight-in-ten Americans get their news from digital devices”- Pew Research Report- January 2021 https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/01/12/more-than-eight-in-ten-americans-get-news-from-digital-devices/ Accessed: June 20, 2021.

[3] Term used to describe the collective number of individual users of the social media application known as Twitter.

[4] Joel Mayward, “Intentional: The Youth Ministry Buzzword,” Joel Mayward (blog), November 7, 2013, http://www.joelmayward.com/search?q=intentional+youth+ministry. Italics for emphasis.

[5] Parker Palmer, Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishing, 2011), 191-92.

[6] Pope Francis, Homily during the Mass for the closing of the XV Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, October 28, 2018, http://www.synod2018.va/content/synod2018/en/news/pope-francis-homily-during-the-mass-for-the-closing-of-the-xv-or.html (accessed November 13, 2018).

[7] Francis, Christus Vivit, Vatican, va., 242.

[8] Francis, Christus Vivit, 246.

[9] Sharon Daloz Parks, Big Questions, Worthy Dreams: Mentoring Emerging Adults in Their Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Faith, (San Francisco, CA: Jossy-Bass Books, 2011), 176.

[10] Daloz Parks, Big Questions, 181.

[11] Daloz Parks, Big Questions, 181-182.

Photo by ROBIN WORRALL on Unsplash

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